This essay is about parenting, power and control, about how to be comfortable exerting power over your child, and about knowing why and when and how to do it. It’s mainly about autistic children.
Everyone wants their child to be happy and successful, and I am assuming that is our common basis for what we do with our children. But there are some myths and fantasies about the nature of happiness and success that can get in the way.
What are the myths about happiness?
First, there is the widespread assumption that children need to reach developmental milestones on time, and that will help them be happy and successful. If a child is not talking by 18 months, parents may feel that something has to be done about it. If they are below grade level, not making friends when their age-mates are, or not interacting the way you expect, then you may feel they are behind. It may be impossible to imagine how someone could grow up and have a career and be independent when they aren’t talking or won’t do school work, and the tendency is to focus on the milestone that they are not meeting, and push them along towards those desired life markers.
In earlier times, people could compare their children’s development with only a few others, and perhaps there has always been social pressure and theories about the best way to raise a child, but now we have something new – statistics based on millions of children. Psychologists have observed countless children and figured out exactly when they say their first word, start walking, and so on – on average. The more we know about averages, the more the differences between our own children and averages seem to be magnified. Then we may want to make those differences go away. Ironically, the more we know about the science of development, the less we accept variation.
It is an error in thinking to to interpret the scientific observations of averages in child development as if they are prescriptions for each child. With my daughter, this error was first applied in the second trimester of her fetal development. The midwife had a chart of weight gain by week of pregnancy, and the numbers on that chart were derived from averages from observation of a great many pregnancies. The midwife tested the weight gain of the baby and said she was below the normal line, and therefore (and here is the error), she should be made to gain more weight. According to the midwife, not being normal was itself the problem. Although it is true that slow weight gain can be a red flag or an indicator of some potentially threatening condition, that was not the concern of the midwife, and there were no tests made for any such condition. She just wanted the fetus to be normal. She suggested that the mother eat more ice cream, as a way to change the number, regardless of the actual health effect of that approach. Had all that scientific data not been available, that mistake could not have been made.
From pregnancy on, professionals are always telling us what normal is (because science is good at that), and we are getting more and more detailed about how normal development is defined. But we need to understand that all of these details, while they may be interesting, are averages and not prescriptions.
Happiness does not come from being normal or average. (Have you met someone who claims their happiness comes from being normal or average?) People are happy when they are moving on their growth path, not when their appearances are measuring up to a psychologist-defined growth path.
One of the dangers of a focus on milestones is that when the child “fails” to meet them, the focus of intervention becomes failure-oriented or remedial. Once we start believing something is wrong, we focus on the failure instead of the success, and that kind of environment programs failure into the child. To repeat, the myth is that all children supposedly need to reach the developmental milestones that are derived from population averages. The reality is that each persons path is different, and variance from averages is not failure. This is true regardless of the amount of variance – a person who appears (from the outside) to be extremely autistic is no more or less a failure on their path than anyone else, and they are not necessarily any less happy because of their not meeting your milestone expectations.
So far I’ve been talking about the first of six myths – the myth that happiness comes from normal development.
A second myth is that interfering with a child’s natural development is hurtful. The logic of this myth is that there is a “natural” expression of needs, and it is the parents’ job to set up an environment where the child is free to be anything they want to be, or even do anything they want. In the extreme, this leads to parents being unwilling to impose anything for fear of squashing the child’s creativity. Practicalities of this approach aside, it is based on a false assumption that people are primarily separate individuals. People are largely formed by relationships, and there is no such thing as an interference-free developmental path. You can choose how to relate, but choosing not to relate is abandonment. Their happiness and basis of success in life grows from your love and your happiness, not from a lack of structure. Living in highly structured rule-bound environments does not prevent happiness.
A third myth is that suffering is bad and should be avoided. This leads some parents to carefully choreograph the children’s lives to avoid any pain and suffering. Anyone who has had their lives so arranged finds their source of suffering somewhere, anyway. Suffering does not block happiness; we need both. And we need practice with both.
A fourth myth is that having material success, ease, affluence, or other benefits given to you leads to happiness. If you believe this, you may have wondered why, in pictures of African villages where the life expectancy is very low and people have very few material comforts, they often seem to be happy. It’s not an illusion; happiness comes from the spiritual and relational dimensions; not from stuff. And, it comes from the movement and the work, not from the arrival. Unhappy people who suddenly get things, or even win a lottery, do not necessarily become happy. People who work for things, or who work through their suffering, can be happy because of the movement that they experience towards their successes.
A fifth myth is that success is externally measured – such as income and job titles. If you want your child to really be happy, you will want them to be successful in whatever way they measure that internally. Success is connecting the inner story to meeting needs, so that she is the agent who makes sure her needs are met. A person feels successful and happy when advancing towards their dreams, not when advancing towards society’s idealized concept of success.
And the final myth is that when parents selflessly sacrifice their own lives to devote everything to the children, that this benefits the children. The reality is that happiness does not transmit that way; it is more of a two way relationship that depends on the parents’ happiness. It’s also not a reasonable goal to fix their life at the expense of yours; both of you need a life that works for both of you.
People grow up to be successful adults after they have been successful at being children. The rest of this chapter will go over control techniques and the reasons for them, geared towards success in the present, which will invariably set the stage for success in the future.
How much control do parents need?
There are two dimensions of control that need consideration: what aspect of their life is under your control, and how absolute that control is.
- You can control behavior, but not motivations, desires, feelings or any other mental state. You can never control who someone is, only what they do. Trying to make them be someone is damaging.
- Within the realm of behavior, you can only control the two margins: the minimum required and the maximum allowed. It is impossible and damaging to try to control behavior that falls between the two margins.
To make this clear, here is an example of a guest coming over. The child has a minimum required set of actions – such as: she must say hello, she must sit at the table, and so on. Your minimums depend on who you are and who she is, but the important things is they are actions, not internals. You can’t require her to like the guest or to want dessert. Some children cannot say hello or sit at the table, so of course your particular minimums depend on that. You also have maximum limits: she may not make excessive noise, or hit or insult people. Again those maximums depend on who you are.
There are potentially a lot of things that could be beyond the limits, that you reasonably need control over, like poor manners, soaking up all your time, destruction of things, and when she eats and sleeps. She has to be safe, and others need to be safe from her. You need to balance her needs with yours. All of this control is in the margins, which should ideally cover only 25-50% of her life. In other words you prioritize safety and other major things, and you only control part of what she does, and you drop the small stuff. This leaves the rest of her time to her, which I will call the joyful middle.
The joyful middle
The whole area between the minimum and maximum margins is the area you do not need control over. For example, maybe she wants to sit on a chair backwards and sing the same song for 45 minutes. Do you really need control over that if she isn’t interrupting others? If you want to stop her from singing, and the reason is because you feel it is not developmentally appropriate, or it doesn’t look like the way someone will grow up to lead a happy and successful life, then please go back and review the myths about happiness. Happiness cannot come from having the joyful middle policed.
Some autistic children have a full-time behavior plan plopped on them. If you include every action she does part of your behavior plan, you are not letting her be her. A comprehensive intervention plan is a failure plan because it says everything is wrong; there is no room for independent growth. Some parents try to eliminate all non-pleasing behavior. This goes too far in appearances, and it says that your whole self is unacceptable. Some parents regulate everything to try to get the child to become normal.
But the joyful middle is more important than all of that. It’s where you relate – love – laugh. It is your relationship that determines your limits (where control is needed) and it is also your relationship that needs at least half your time to be supportive, accepting time.
Autistic children can be especially sensitive to “we-think” – when adults tell children what we think. Typical children want to please the parent and want to mimic the thoughts and feelings behind the modeled behavior, because typical children are more culturally adaptive. Autistic children are more independent and don’t necessarily think the same things, or want to. So the joyful middle allows them to think divergent thoughts.
Autistic children often cannot accept directions that rely on complex interpretation of inner states, such as “be nice”. They need half of their lives to be free from those socially complex demands.
Ironically, autistic children – who are more independent – are often more rigidly controlled in institutional settings than typical children, or more “therapized”. Watching staff and teachers in programs, I’ve regularly seen adults instruct the children in details about where to sit, exactly what words to say, and every other detailed behavior. The adults have convinced themselves that “they don’t know” – they don’t know how to play, how to act. Having no joyful middle, or not even understanding the difference between the margins and the joyful middle is a recipe for out-of-control behavior. The naturally independent child needs time to be nonconforming. Without it, the steam builds up, and it comes out in some kind of unnecessary conflict.
The psychology industry is extraordinarily blind to relationships, particularly when it comes to the analysis of children’s behavior. A child is said to be “difficult” or exhibit “hyperactivity” as if the child is floating in empty space and nothing else exists. A child is never in isolation, yet we analyze them as if they are.
In reality, a baby starts its life being inside a person, connected and having no concept of self apart from that relationship. There is no individual. The separation and development of a self as a separate person happens gradually, not all at once at birth. During childhood, the development of an independent self happens in the context of primary relationships. So it is helpful to think of relationships as the basis of the analysis, not the separate self.
If there is a mother and child, and the child is screaming and the mother is at the end of her rope, they are both having problems, and the problems are intensely relational. All social problems are relationship problems. (Don’t pretend you aren’t part of it.)
It is helpful to resist making judgmental evaluations of a person as if they are isolated, and instead make contextual observations. So instead of saying a child is withdrawn, you can think “I don’t understand her” instead of labeling what is wrong with her. Basically, making blanket evaluations of a child can be inaccurate and can limit how you think of the child and yourself.
Before the age of modern psychology, we didn’t have the psycho-vocabulary. Whether parents were good or bad parents, they didn’t have the escape of pathologizing their children with non-relational vocabulary. Today, every parent can be an armchair child-development specialist, and make the home into a laboratory of theories and techniques. The danger here is that parents raise children by technique instead of through the knowledge that comes from instinct and love. The relationship with a child is sacred and unique and requires the full power of your love. If you use techniques at the expense of love, the child may as well be raised by robots. Unfortunately the industry pushes robotic parenting constantly: the more a child interfaces with the system of school specialists, counselors, judges and other professionals, the more they tell the parents how to raise her. Instead of just sticking to the margins (the minimum required and maximum allowed behavior) they can sometimes consume the joyful middle – the freedom you have as a parent to do it your way, from your soul. That has the danger of taking the most valuable thing away from the child: your relationship.
We’re all familiar with basic physical needs like food and shelter, but are often confused by the more abstract needs. There are two opposite and often simultaneous misunderstandings of children’s needs:
- First, spiritual and psychological needs like affection, belonging, and contribution are sometimes dismissed as not “real needs”. But they are real, and sometimes, an expressed outrage or other behavior problem can be traced to some non-physical need not being met.
- Second, material possessions and recognitions are sometimes counted as needs, when they are not.
A child will often demand something which is not a true need – like a cookie. It is easy to get confused about what is a real need and what isn’t. There is a difference between a need and an addiction, and even young children can have addictions. When a person has an addiction – a feeling of need for something that is not a true need, it is a sign that some other true need is not being met. People transfer unmet needs onto other things – such as sugar, co-dependent kinds of attention, fatigue, or possessions.
Suppose the child is going haywire over not getting a cookie. First of all, you are not hurting her by denying her the thing, which is not a real need. You are not being mean or overly strict, because you are not denying her any real need. Unless the child really needs sugar because of a metabolic condition, the apparent need for a cookie is an illusion – an addiction. There is probably some other need behind what is expressed, though, that is a real need, and this hidden need is not being met. It may sound austere to just focus on basic needs and leave out the other stuff, the same way that life in a convent sounds too austere or minimalist to most people. But the magic is that when basic needs are really met, the other stuff is not even wanted. The reason our society focuses so much on addictions and shopping and other non-essentials is because we are desperately trying to fulfill our basic spiritual needs and failing. The addictions are masks for that failure.
In practical terms you have to accept some of the addictions as temporary masks for deeper disconnects, which a parent might cannot discover in the midst of handling everything else in a hectic family life. But accept them as temporary masks, not as an integral part of the child’s inner success story.
Many times the child is not asking for the cookie, but we are repeatedly trying to use the cookie as a quick fix. And here I mean that the cookie could be anything we project onto them. If you watch babies, you can easily see that they do not need pink wallpaper and a room full of toys – in fact, they can’t even see toys or grasp them at first. So the idea that a baby needs all that stuff is pure projection from the parents onto the child, or it fulfills some need or addiction of only the parents. Parents frequently hype up the things that they project onto the child. Before a child has had ice cream for example, they may look at it with the same quizzical baby look that they use for anything new, but they aren’t demanding it. The parents often are the only ones making a big deal out of these things. Children’s real needs are often so much simpler than what people project onto them.
The interesting thing about autistic children is that they may not get with the program of the wider culture – they may not internalize the addictive desire for ice cream or room decorations or toys the way most children do. They can show through their actions the difference between needs they experience from the inside, and those you project onto them.
And a final point about false needs is that what we call “socializing” is not experienced as a basic need the same way by different people. Autistic people may not want to hang out in ways typical of their age group, but if you are worried about the need for socializing not being met, you may be thinking along the lines of psychological milestones – which are not the same as universal needs. It may help to tease apart what socializing is. Depending on how the word is used, it is at least three separate things:
- First, socializing is used to mean practice in interpersonal interactions. We all have interpersonal needs like love, acceptance, expression and belonging. Playing or hanging out with groups of friends is one way to meet those needs, but not the only way. Some autistic children have a very low need for, and a low tolerance for long sessions of being with other children. Accept that it may not be their way.
- Second, socializing is sometimes used as a synonym for enculturating – learning the language and other communication norms of a social group. Interventions for autism are often correctly based on the notion that the child is not normally enculturating, but incorrectly based on the notion that more time in the same settings will result in more enculturation.
- Third, socializing is learning about the social contract, which includes the law, ethics, and the way the economy works. In this sense, a socialized person is ready to work and be an adult part of the economic and legal system. These things aren’t psychological needs, but rather the margins of control that the child is ideally guided into, for the common good.
My message on false needs is that we can save a lot of work and conflict and miscommunication by learning to recognize things that are not needed, and letting go of them. The autistic child may not need an equivalent summer camp experience, toys, honors, ice cream, hours of social time, or thousands of other things that you may want or feel are special about childhood.
I’m getting into some detail about needs because it is so closely connected to having effective control. People who live in a state of having their true needs mostly met are people you can work with; they are amenable to change, resilient to mistakes, and do not have the kind of extreme behavior that holds everyone else hostage to their demands. It’s great to have a child like that because then keeping control of the margins takes very little effort.
Among people’s needs, there are the physical (food, air, shelter), and the connecting-type needs like friendship, affection, intimacy and belonging. I won’t spend time on these because they are better understood. However, I’ll call out some of the other, frequently overlooked needs.
One of the most important and most overlooked needs that autistic people experience is autonomy. Notice the first three letters are the same as “autism” – and it makes sense: autism means “of the self” and it is a condition of being independent from the surrounding culture. Autonomy is what you have when you are allowed to be independent. While everyone needs some autonomy, autistic people often have trouble finding ways to get enough of it. Guarding the joyful middle is a great way to think about helping meet that need for a naturally independent child. In our case, I have had to fend off a number of people who want to “help” my child by offering lessons and other activities. Since she can appear docile and possibly even sad and lonely, the hero instinct seems to well up with some people and they want to intervene. So I’ve had to put a high value on the time spent at home when she is not directly supervised, and make that a priority along with the multitudes of outside things she could be doing.
There is a term – “teaching self-determination” – which is not the same thing as autonomy. There is a value in teaching a child to make good choices, by first offering a young child a choice between two good options, then gradually opening it up to more freedom of choice with correspondingly less supervision, until they are ready to make adult decisions on their own. However, that parent-led sequence it not the same thing as having autonomy. Children of all ages also need autonomous time when the parent is not teaching or doing anything.
Another frequently overlooked need is contribution. The unemployed can feel worse about being useless, or not being able to give, than about not earning money. Anyone who is in a position in the family or in society where their actions don’t matter, where they cannot contribute, or where they feel they are not in a social mesh, can become depressed because of that need for contribution being un-met. Autistic children can easily get into that kind of family position. If their skills in housework lag far behind their expected level for their age, they may not be able to contribute to the cooking and cleaning. Or it may feel like too much work for the parent to get them to that level. So they may be limited to fake-helping or not helping at all, and this may be a deep and chronic source of other problems.
And then there is integrity. Autistic people often have a pronounced need for clear and honest relationships, and for following through and trusting others to back up their words with commensurate actions. It can be a source of stress (and therefore of behavior problems) to be forced to break from integrity.
Another often overlooked need is for inspiration. It is important that the things we do are connected to a deeper meaning than just learning to conform. For this reason, curricular materials that teach reading, using text that is too boring to be worth reading, is not good material – especially for an autistic child. Lessons in manners absent any context or known reason for the lessons are also hard to give. A child needs at least some of her life to be guided by the joy of learning .
Combining these abstract needs together, we see that all people need to work for things. Just as we need to experience suffering, we need to experience the effect of our own actions on easing our suffering. It is a universal need for people to be hungry or lonely, or fail, or experience some other kind of lack, then find the motivation to do something to fix it, and then finally experience the success. Happiness is a movement, not a still state of being. When you provide for the needs of a child, it is not enough to provide a static baseline of stuff and time and energy, or to go through a pre-made curriculum. You also have to provide a place for her to fail and succeed from her own work. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether she is poking at dirt with sticks or using expensive teaching equipment, but what does matter is that she develops power from being the agent that works towards meeting her own needs.
On guessing why
One of the steps in handling a child’s unwanted behavior is supposedly figuring out why they are doing it. If we know why, we can address the root problem – so the theory goes. I’m going to show why guessing the reasons for behaviors is rarely possible or useful.
According to Rousseau, before age 12, children can only parrot reason; they are not rational in the scientific sense. Therefore any attempt to ask “why” questions or explain reasoning is eliciting only responses whose form appears rational but whose content does not follow from logic. I agree with that, but disagree that many people after the age of 12 develop a substantial logically sound level of self-reflection. Generally speaking, attributing reasoning to actions is based more on projected ideology than on observation. In other words, most of the times we say “because”, we are making up a reason that fits what we want; we are not actually deducing the reason from evidence.
Look at this example: A child breaks a plate. You ask “why”. No matter how many different ways you ask the question, the child cannot usually self-reflect and find the rational answer, which might be something like the lack of sufficient dexterity, or because it was the only way I could think of to avoid being forced to eat the stuff on the plate. Instead they say they didn’t break it, or it wasn’t their fault, or there was something wrong with the plate. But those are all made-up rationalizations, not the actual (rational) reasons.
Here is a more involved example, using the point of view of the parent:
The situation: “Josh wanted to be in the front seat because he saw Sarah in the front seat, and I said no, then and he cried because he thinks he should get more because he’s older, so I tried to explain WHY he needed to be in the back, and in the end I was so exasperated that I had to offer a treat to get him to sit in the back.”
Now here is a point by point analysis of the problems and solutions with this scene:
- The parent’s guesses about Why (because he saw…, because he thinks…) are likely wrong or incomplete. Particularly if the child is autistic, the actual reasons for behavior are very difficult for another person, even the mother, to guess. Proceeding as if you automatically know what is going on is likely to meet with failure when the child’s behavior does not follow along with the guesses.
- The child cannot internalize the reason for the rule, because … he is a child. So there is little point in explaining, and certainly not while there is a conflict going on.
- A treat is not a real need; so the parent has suppressed a real need by substituting a false need, which leads to addictions.
- If the parent decides it is not a negotiation, such as when safety is at stake, then it is not a negotiation. Force may be more appropriate than words – just put him in the back. The use of force isn’t hurting, even if the child’s howls are crafted to sound the same as pain.
I’ve heard a lot of parents talk about their autistic children using guessing language like “My son won’t X because he wants X” or “she doesn’t like change”. Very often, as an observer who identifies with the child more than the parent, the guesses do not ring true. The parent may say the child cannot handle any change, but as the observer I see the child reacting to the ambiguity of communication about change, not reacting to the actual change. Or the parent may project social-competition motives that the child does not appear to have.
When we habitually repeat these guesses, we lose creativity and start to be rigid about those being the explanation for everything. Then the child starts to believe it too. My child would almost always claim “I was tired” when I inquired what went wrong in a situation, and I knew it was incomplete, but it had become a habitual way for her to assign a reason for a behavior.
To summarize: the first lesson on rationality is not to expect it from the child. The second lesson is not to attempt it yourself.
Instead of resorting to reasoning out each situation, here are three overarching meta-reasons for an autistic child’s behavior which you can use as a kind of big reason for everything:
- She’s independent. Autism is “of the self” – not doing things the normal way or for normal reasons. Everything is out of the box. The autistic child is not trying to be out of the box on purpose; they just cannot actually see the box.
- She’s sensitive. Something was probably too much in some way. (The two most valuable adjectives to remember about autism are these: sensitive and independent.)
- It’s relational. The reason why has to do with other people and relationships. There is no person in a vacuum, so there is no explanation that only involves one person.
Now we turn from “why” to “what”.
Establishing facts and feelings
Consider something that happened that is within the realm of a control problem. Perhaps the child broke something. There’s several things going on: (1) Their internal logic, or the story that makes sense to her about it, (2) What happened in the observable universe, and (3) Your story about cause and effect. To give an example:
- (1) Child’s internal logic – “Mommy was staring into the computer screen and was tense. She seems to be hurting. The more she does that, the more irritated she gets, but she can’t break free. I think it is controlling her. So I broke the screen, so that she could escape from it.”
- (2) What actually happened – The child smashed the computer screen.
- (3) Your story about cause and effect – “She goes into a violent rage for no reason.” Or: “She wants attention and needs to learn patience.” (or any of a million reasons)
If this happens, you have a basic choice, which only you can make: Is the conversation going to be about facts or stories? In other words, are you going to focus on establishing the facts, or are you going to argue over whose version of cause-and-effect is the true story? A child who does this kind of thing might not be able to articulate their story, and if you make it about stories, it becomes unresolvable. It is beyond the capacity of the two of you to come to a common understanding of the actual reasoning. If the child actually felt the computer screen was causing you tension, she might be right in a way, but her logic of destroying it is childish. On the other hand, if you project your story onto her, she will resist because that is not what happened in her mind. That can escalate a fight over reasoning. Whenever your verbal opponent is a child and your subject matter is self-reflective reasoning, you have already lost.
If you find yourself arguing over versions of reality, keep in mind that there are three kinds of truths. First is the facts: “The screen broke.” This simple attention to facts powerfully sets the stage for controlling the boundaries of behavior, without unnecessary reference to reasoning. The second truth is her feelings. This is also an un-arguable truth. Each person has her own feelings, and just knowing what they are is often a huge step towards the solution of any conflict or behavior problem. The third truth is your feelings, again not something anyone else can take away or deny.
De-escalation of conflicts can be helped tremendously by separating out the three truths, and keeping those separate from expectations, judgments, stories and so on. For example, if you say “would you stop freaking out about the curtains? I keep telling you they aren’t going to fall down again,” this mixes a demand with a judgment with a guess about her rationale. Separating out the truths would sound like this: “You are crying.” (fact) “Is it about the curtains?” (eliciting her feelings) “I ran in here because I thought the curtains fell on you again” (your actions and feelings). There is little need to draw connections between all these; just short unambiguous sentences could be far more helpful.
Finally we are turning to the core substance of controlling, which is what I promised this chapter would be about. Part of controlling is giving the instruction.
Here are some rules for giving instructions, tailored especially for autistic children:
- Be unambiguous. Ambiguity is a very difficult thing for autistic people, so you will have to get good at telling the difference between ambiguous and unambiguous commands. Unambiguous commands cannot be interpreted in more than one way. It doesn’t mean being loud or positive, and doesn’t have anything to do with simplifying. For example, “Please put all your clean clothes in neat stacks in the closet, and all your dirty clothes in the basket” is unambiguous, although it could be a fairly long, multi-step process. That’s more effective than saying “put your clothes away“, because “away” could mean anywhere. The child might decide that “away” means in the trash, or that all the clean clothes should be taken out of the dresser and put somewhere else.
- Don’t soften commands by asking questions. For example, instead of saying “do you wanna wipe off your face?”, say “wipe off your face.” Autistic people take questions as questions, not commands. Even at 43, I make mistakes at this. The other day someone asked if we should put away some chairs that were spread out in a studio, and I said I didn’t know if we should, and continued to do nothing. On my way home, I realized he was asking for my help to put away the chairs.
- Only request what a dead man could not do. The so-called “dead man’s test” of behavior is: if a dead man can do it, it is not behavior. When you make a request, it has to be something that a living person can do, such as “carry this to the table without spilling it”, not something that a dead person can do, such as “don’t spill this”. Generally this translates into asking the child to DO something, rather than asking the child to NOT do something.
- Avoid reference to cultural norms and symbols. An example of a reference to a cultural norm is the instruction “be nice.” A child would have to know what society believes “nice” entails, which an autistic child is not going to be able to do as easily as others. Instead of “don’t be so disrespectful”, say what specific thing to do instead. Typical children are more likely to try to comply with commands like this, even with only fragmented knowledge of the culture, because the way they think allows them to do things via imitation without full understanding. But autistic children think differently and may not have the inherent habit of imitating cultural norms.
- Break down the steps, as you would with any child, but…
- Don’t break down the steps to the point of absurdity. If you want the child to get her hat from her room, but you only ask her to go into her room (the first step), she may not comply, because she is independent and will not do something that makes no sense to her internal logic. It could threaten her need for integrity to comply with what sounds like nonsense.
- Don’t expect generalization. People do not generalize knowledge as much as some educational psychologists claim. For example, you have to teach a child to measure salt, and teach them again to measure flour, and teach them again to measure everything else. It takes a very long time to acquire the skill of generalized measurement from all the specifics. This is true with social skills as well. I know a teenager who can, after some years of training, say “how are you”. So at this rate of learning, when she’s 30, she will be able to have a conversation – the same conversation – with anyone for six seconds. I assume they are teaching her to say “how are you” in the hope that she will generalize. Time will tell, but I don’t think she will.
- Only ask for what you are willing to enforce. Many parents ask for a lot more than they are willing to enforce, the child sees a way out and does not comply, and the parent’s words fizzle out as empty demands or repeated nagging. So, before you give an instruction, be sure that you can win. That brings us to the topic of force.
You must be willing to enforce the instructions that you give. If your instructions are in the margins (where it is appropriate to control behavior), and are things the child can do, and are motivated by love on your part, then it is right to enforce them. You do not have to convince the child of anything or buy the behavior with treats, or threaten her.
In order for force to be successful, the instructions have to be right. Think about a minimum required behavior that you could instruct the child to do, such as wash her face. Before you give the command, what is your enforcement plan? If you cannot think of any way to make sure it happens, then asking for it is just spewing out empty words. If what you are really doing is making a suggestion or letting her know what is healthy or practical to do, then state it as a suggestion and leave it at that. If it is really a requirement, then you must be willing to carry it through with as much force as necessary.
Here are some tips on carrying through:
- State what needs to happen next, and then stay there until that is done. Do not go on to the next thing. For example, “The next thing you are going to do is clean up these blocks, then we will have dinner.” If she delays on the blocks, you can stay at that point in the day until it is done as long as needed. This guarantees success, so you aren’t setting her up for failure.
- Do half of what you want done. If she puts away one block, you put away one block. You are doing it together, but she can bring the process to a halt. If you continue “modeling” by doing the work yourself without her participation, she will see that she does not have to do anything.
- Offer the consequences. You can arrange what happens based on whether she complies. This is a little like a threat, but different in the sense that it is something non-harmful that you are actually prepared to do, and will definitely follow through with. Ideally it is related to the instruction. An example is “If you get your own clothes on, you can wear whatever you like”. Or “If you clean up outside, then I’ll let you play outside more often”. Or, “If you don’t clean up outside, I’ll put your toys in the garage.” This approach lays out the benefits of getting to a more responsible level. If the child is not ready, she will not comply, and you should do as you said you would. This is not what is called “natural consequences”; it is explicit consequences applied intentionally.
- Make it work for you. You are not a slave-mommy who gives up her entire life for the precious little one. Remember, it is a relationship and a family, and much of the reason for all these commands and force is so that you can have some order in your life, and the child keeps her place as the child, not the master. You are also teaching and doing lots for her, but a lot of that teaching happens best in the joyful middle; whereas the part about enforcing behaviors is more for you, and that is in the margins.
- Accept that you will sometimes make ridiculous or un-enforceable demands, and change them. Don’t change because the child has whined you into submission, but because you learned that she cannot do what you asked, or you are not willing to enforce it after all. For example, if you say she has to clean up every speck of the glitter on the floor, and an hour later, you are both exhausted from crying over this incident, you might say “I see that was too much to ask of a three-year-old” and change the rule.
With maximum allowed behaviors, it is more complicated because when something that should not have happened has already been done, there is no success plan. If it is possible to undo or restore the thing in question, then it becomes a required behavior (a positive instead of negative). Or if you can think of it as a positive in the first place (keeping things intact instead of not breaking them), then you can state it as a minimum required behavior.
Things that I advise against for enforcement are:
- Bribing. Bribing is admitting that you do not have the ability to enforce, and you resort to paying for compliance. When the reward is sweets or something else that isn’t a true need of the child, it is associating things together that should not be associated.
- Setting up a failure hurdle. A failure hurdle is a task that is unlikely to be done right, which a parent may set up in order to catch or create bad behavior and serve as a justification for punishment.
- Praise and pride. When something is truly a minimum required behavior, it should not be praised or called out in any way, except perhaps the first time it is achieved. Excessive praise in the form of cheers like “good job” is a form of judgment which can cause the child to internalize too much pride. In particular with autistic children, judgments (even so-called positive ones) can be received as lies or assaults on the child’s sense of integrity.
- Herding. Herding is an enforcement technique in which you draw on a child’s herding instinct by a hyped-up tone of voice or explicit calls to be like other people. If you say “everyone wants to” or “make mommy proud” or even just “yay! this will be great”, then these would be herding calls. Perhaps they work on typical children, but with the autistic ones, they do not absorb and imitate your wishes. Just because you think something is great does not mean they should think so too. These children are independent. (A humorous anecdote on attempted herding: A young autistic woman was running low on clothes and her social worker went on about how she needs new panties and bras, in a room full of agency staff people. She kept looking at the client and making exaggerated expressions, singing “we’re women, and we can have nice panties!” After 20 years of not caring about looking feminine, having a social worker trying to herd her into new addictive needs obviously had no effect on her desires or behavior.)
The behaviorist viewpoint is in fashion today, which maintains that you can reinforce the behavior you want by administering desirable and aversive consequences based on the child’s response to a given stimulus. The science behind the techniques of conditioning behavior is valid, but there are problems with making behaviorism the centerpiece of parenting. First, do you want to live under the assumption that your child has no soul? Behaviorism taken to the extreme reduces the inner life to surface behaviors, essentially claiming there is nothing inside or that whatever is inside does not matter. That counters the experience of everyday life. Plus all the prophets and philosophers agree that the inner life matters most in the end. Only a person who is spiritually dead inside could possibly believe that mental health could be reduced to observation of behavior, and the fact that our health system lumps all states of mind under the term “behavioral health” only makes it clear what a diseased system it is.
Behaviorists say that the conditioning practice has to be consistent 24 hours a day, and this means there is no joyful middle; there is no time for being oneself. There is only acting. You can elicit mimicking behavior, but the danger in being successful is you end up with a parroting machine instead of a real child, a person whose shame runs so deep that nothing about her natural self can be accepted and everything must be repressed. Conditioning itself is a fact of life – it is a partial framework for understanding learning. However, if you make the home into a laboratory of controlled conditioning, you would be shutting out everything else and using the child as a lab animal.
Underlying these issues with behaviorism is power. You have power over a young child, and you should have power to shield her from danger and guide her in a helpful direction. But the commonest flavors of behaviorism go much further than that and attempt to control a child’s manner, desires, and motivations. In a twisted way they admit to the inner life by trying to colonize it, and ensure that the child experiences no autonomy – no real choices. It is not natural to control any other person to that depth; it is like slavery. An autistic child living under constant surveillance and judgment is under constant stress and cannot exercise the integrity that they need.
At the same time, the behavior control industry is oddly blind to the fact that conditioning works in reverse. Remember everything is relational, and no mind can be analyzed in isolation. When a child cries until she gets her way, she is applying intentional conditioning to make the parent behave how she wants. If you are savoring the great power of being the giver of consequences and the colonizer of your child’s private life, you are going to end up being incredibly blind to the reverse process being wrought on you. Have you seen other parents who are exhausted with a child they find difficult, and then noticed how the child is running the family? Blindness to power can send people down that path, and the parent becomes the slave.
My advice is to control behavior at the margins, not in the joyful middle, do not colonize (let the child have a private life), and do not worry too much about “reinforcements” from the scientific sense. Just apply force using the techniques given above, and let the child sort out what it means.
The power framework
Most discussions of autism do not use the word “power” – it is a blind spot. I will try to show that much of the problem behavior with autistic children is related to power, and therefore having a mental framework to view these things will help you understand them better.
You can try this game with just about any child: Say “I bet you can’t push me over”. If the child tries and succeeds, she finds this amusing. A sullen child will often perk up and play variants this game endlessly. A reason they like it is that it contradicts the relative powerlessness of childhood and gives them an experience of exerting power.
Another amusement is the Wrong game, where you do things wrong on purpose: wear shoes on the wrong feet, spill water, and so on. If a child lives under tight scrutiny for everything and does not feel OK about being wrong sometimes, they could be afraid of playing the game, but then they might find it delightful when they feel the approval of being wrong at their discretion.
These games bring power to the surface, when it is often carefully hidden. In particular with autistic children, the people around them can intuitively feel that the children are wrong about everything down to the core, and that they need intensive help, and the form of the help is telling them what to do. (When people start off by telling you what to do, does that feel helpful to you?) In autism-specific programs, I notice that when staff give options or suggestions to children, they are relentless about getting the behavior they want, and sometimes do not actually allow any real choices. For example, they might say “you wanna come over here and watch this?” If the child says no or does not react, they might escalate their cajoling campaign and keep at it until they win, and the child capitulates. In these situations, the staff may ultimately feel that it was not about power; they were just showing the child what to do in a situation where she did not know what to do. But if you give someone a false choice and do not accept the choice they make, then it is about power.
Here is an actual situation that shows the problem. An autistic teen was in the middle of eating and I invited her to play with some dry ice before it all evaporated. This would involve interrupting her routine. She started getting upset, until I explained that I was only giving her a choice, not an order. When she understood, she calmed down, but she was clearly unpracticed in making decisions for herself. Many observers would claim that the root problem is that she cannot accept change, or that she is a creature of routines. Many autistic children are described as such. However, underneath that was the power dimension. When she understood that she had a choice, she did not melt down and have any “behavior problem” at all. It was only when her snack time was apparently being interrupted without her involvement that she experienced the melt down.
Anything that involves bad behavior should be looked at in the power framework first, before assuming that there is some other problem.
Does this advice work?
I’ll close the essay with the story of control in my own experience of raising a child. There were some hard times, and looking back, the hardest times were when I didn’t accept who I was and I didn’t accept my power to set the rules. I was worried about my daughter’s life not being normal enough: I was excluded from normal society, and I didn’t want her to be excluded the same way. I forgot to listen to myself at times in the effort to improve myself, and I over-trusted the typical ways of American child raising. That took away some of the warmth and she seemed to focus more on security as a result. One of the most major problems as a young child was that she would not sleep alone. Although I did not want to make her do that if she was not ready, I convinced myself that it was the right thing. So my enforcement was weak and she cried a lot and we had an ongoing problem. The problem was relational, not just her being difficult in isolation. When I accepted that I needed to be more absolute about the boundaries, it was possible to resolve that pattern.
When I followed the advice that I gave in this chapter, things went very well. By age 10 there was almost no more control that had to be done. We went through that work. Now she gets up from dinner and washes all the dishes without being asked, and does all her homework and takes care of all her things. She is aware of the minimum required and maximum allowed, and I allow her to live her life in the joyful middle, where she has autonomy. I ask about her inner life and it comes out in her writing, but I don’t colonize or pathologize it. So the advice worked for us, and I hope it works for you too.